Thursday, April 15, 2010
The Hurt Locker
There's a moment near the end of the Lord of the Rings -- it goes by so quickly, maybe I imagined it -- in which the hobbits, back in the shire and celebrating their victory, exchange a look that says, "The shire's normal again, we've got what we fought for, but, having battled the armies of Sauron heroically, can we ever be content in our small, leafy idyll?"
The central character of The Hurt Locker, which I finally got to see two days ago, is addicted to the extremity of war. He's every American kid's hero: a cowboy, an astronaut, a gunslinger, a life-saver, all rolled into one. He's also a profoundly disturbed individual. He volunteers for a bomb disposal unit and, when his rotation's done after he's disarmed some 900 improvised explosives, and cheated death a dozen times, he can't stand the peace of home -- a supermarket packed with goods, a suburban home, the American equivalent for the Shire of the Lord of the Rings -- and volunteers for another round of duty.
I have masculinity on my mind, because I'm due to lecture on the subject tomorrow, and that's the prism through which I viewed the Hurt Locker. One critic has suggested that the film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, "shakes up traditional concepts of what men are and how they behave." The very opposite is true. The movie functions like an ode to masculinity. The same critic went on to write, "[Bigelow's] deeper interest lies in men's tribal rites and rituals; their fears, posturings and warrior codes; their feelings about sex and fatherhood; their conflicted loyalties and clashing ideas of what leadership and heroism mean. Like one of her inspirations, the ultra-bloody Sam Peckinpah, Bigelow is intimately concerned with the bonds that connect men with each other, and the values that connect them with themselves." This is exactly right, but I don't see how it shakes up any traditional notions of masculinity. What the film does is focus on these issues so relentlessly, they appear as phenomena worthy of dispassionate examination. A two-paced development is thus set up: an intense close-up view of men in combat which is simultaneously a clinical scrutiny of masculine rites of passage. The war, devoid of political context, becomes every war, any war, just as the protagonist becomes Everyman.